Thanks to the local editors for providing this little taste of paradise!
Back in 1607, just one day after English settlers aboard the Susan Constant dropped anchor in the Chesapeake Bay, explorers happened upon Native Americans savoring one of Tidewater's finest fall traditions: the oyster roast.
“We came to a place where they had made a great fire, and had been newly roasting Oysters,” wrote George Percy, one of the original Jamestown settlers. “When they perceived our coming, they fled away… and left many of the Oysters in the fire. We eat some of the Oysters, which were very large and delicate in taste.”
Local oysters no longer grow to the size of dinner plates as they did back then, but local watermen expect an excellent season both in quantity and quality, although prices might be a bit higher than in the past because of reduced supply from other southern states.
“They're beautiful, just beautiful,” said Chris Ludford, who hand-cultivates his Pleasure House brand of oysters near the mouth of the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach.
Here's how to seize the season by throwing your own oyster roast, a tradition that Eastern Shore oysterman Tom Gallivan called “the ultimate combination of Southern foodways – a barbecue, seafood and social gathering.”
“It's really the essence of fall and winter,” he said.
While the bivalves are roasting and your friends are twisting knives to release fat, juicy meats, find a spot away from the crowd. Stand still. Listen for the late-summer thrum of bugs, wind-rustled leaves on the verge of changing color and the clatter of empty oyster shells tossed into buckets.
That is the sound of summer giving way to fall.
SECURE SOME OYSTERS
Plan on two dozen or so oysters for each guest. Oysters can be purchased a day or two before your event. Wash them off with a hose before storing them on ice in a cooler.
You can find oysters at most local seafood shops. Uncle Chuck's Seafood at the Virginia Beach Farmers Market offers a variety of branded bivalves, including Ludford's Pleasure House oysters from the Lynnhaven River, Gallivan's Shooting Points from the Chesapeake Bay and Sewansecotts harvested from the Atlantic Ocean.
The farmers market is at 3640 Dam Neck Road in Virginia Beach. 263-4788 or on Facebook
BUILD A PIT
If you already have a rock-rimmed fire pit, that will work just fine. To make our cooking surface, we used the grate from a charcoal grill and attached two poles to it using heavy-gauge wire.
If you're starting from scratch, you'll need four cinder blocks and a piece of sheet metal about 4-foot square to make the cooking surface. Place a cinder block underneath each of the four corners of the sheet metal.
FIRE THE PIT
Build a blaze that matches the size of your cooking surface and start the fire 1-1/2 to 2 hours before you plan to begin cooking. When the coals are glowing red hot, place the grate or sheet metal over the coals, and you're ready to cook. Preheat the sheet metal before adding the oysters.
HAVE BURLAP ON HAND
Although it's called an oyster roast, you'll really be steaming the bivalves by covering them with wet burlap.
Buy enough burlap to cover your cooking surface four times; you'll blanket each batch of cooking oysters with a double layer of burlap while the other two layers of burlap sit soaking in a bucket.
We purchased burlap for $2.41 a yard at Eastern Burlap & Trading Co., 834 W. 25th St., Norfolk, 622-5914
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Shortly after starting the fire, submerge your burlap in the bucket of water; it takes a while to get it good and waterlogged.
COOK THE OYSTERS
Spread a single layer of oysters on your cooking surface and cover with two layers of burlap, making sure that no burlap touches the fire.
Cook oysters for 2 to 6 minutes, depending on the preferred texture. Lower cooking times result in oysters that are a little harder to open but that remain-ultra tender in a pool of salty “liquor,” or oyster juice.
Longer cooking times result in oysters that are fully opened, not as tender, but still plenty tasty.
PREP THE TABLE
Have your table set with oyster knives, heavy gloves or cloths, paper towels and dipping sauces.
Oyster knives can be purchased for about $3 each at local tackle shops and hardware stores, including local Taylor's Do it Centers.
SERVE THE OYSTERS
If you're using the pole-and-grill grate method, have two people carry the oysters to the table and dump them right on it.
If you're cooking on sheet metal, use a shovel to bring the oysters to the table.
EAT THE OYSTERS
Roasted oysters are much easier to get into than raw ones. Wearing a glove – or using a thick cloth to hold the oyster – insert an oyster knife into the gap between the shells. If you like a bit of oyster liquor with your meat, be sure to hold the shell horizontally while opening it.
Insert the blade of the oyster knife into the opening between the top and bottom shell and twist the knife to pry the shell open. Slide the knife along the inside surface of the top shell to detach the muscle.
Remove the top shell and slide the blade underneath the meat to detach the muscle from the bottom of the shell.
Dip – or not – and slurp.
Don't dare toss those empty shells into the trash.
Instead, in Virginia Beach, call Lynnhaven River Now. The organization will pick up the oyster shells following your roast, and they will be cured and later used on a sanctuary oyster reef. Call 962-5398 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation provides the same service for residents outside of Virginia Beach. Call 622-1964 or visit www.cbf.org/sos-hr.
Makes: About 1-1/2 cups
-1/2 cup cider vinegar
-1/2 cup water
-2 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
-1 tablespoon chopped garlic
-1 teaspoon lemon juice
-1 teaspoon grated onion
-1/2 cup chopped green onion
-1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
Whisk together all ingredients, and spoon onto roasted oysters.
Makes: 1 serving
-1-1/2 ounces overproof bourbon
-1/2 ounce cherry liqueur
Fill a pint glass with cracked ice. Add the bourbon and cherry liqueur and stir well.
Strain the drink into a chilled glass called a coupe.
Note: For an oyster roast, this drink is better served on the rocks in a highball glass.
Here are two wines perfect for pairing with oysters, roasted or raw, both available locally at Total Wine & More:
Bougrier Loire Valley Muscadet, $9.99
Bougrier Les Martinieres, $8.99 or $11.00 for 1.5 liters